• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

How Japan Airlines passengers escaped plane crash engulfed in flames


Jan 4, 2024


A Japan Airlines passenger jet and a coast guard plane collided on an airport runway in Tokyo on Tuesday, killing five of the six people on board the coast guard aircraft. The Airbus A350 went up in flames. But all 379 people on board, including 12 crew members, were able to escape — with one passenger describing it as a “miracle.”

Japanese officials are still investigating the cause of the incident, but flight safety experts say the role of the flight crew, improvements in plane safety designs and — crucially — the way the passengers reacted would all have been key to helping them evacuate safely.

“I think the crew did a fabulous job,” Ed Galea, a professor and leader of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at London’s University of Greenwich, said in an interview Wednesday. He noted that the crew members were operating under particularly difficult conditions because the plane was nose-down on the tarmac, meaning that passengers leaving from the rear probably had to walk up a steep angle, while those using the front exits were walking down a slope.

Japan Airlines plane crash kills 5 coast guard crew, as 367 passengers escape

Yet the evacuation was completed within 20 minutes of the plane landing and catching fire, according to Japan Airlines’ managing executive officer.

A flight attendant for an international airline headquartered in Asia, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, described the incident as a “model for a perfect evacuation.”

Having both “well-trained crew and well-behaved passengers” is essential to successfully evacuating an aircraft in an emergency situation, he said.

Eyewitnesses described experienced flight attendants directing relatively calm passengers. “When the plane stopped, in less than one minute, the cabin was full of smoke,” Aruto Iwama told Reuters news agency. “There was screaming, but most people were calm and stayed in their seats, sitting and waiting. I think that’s why we were able to escape so smoothly.”

Another passenger, Satoshi Yamake, told Reuters that “the flight attendants told us to stay calm and instructed us to get off the plane.” Just 10 to 15 minutes after the passengers had moved away from the plane, he said, the whole aircraft was engulfed in flames.

“I heard an explosion about 10 minutes after we all got off the plane. I don’t think we would have made it if we evacuated later,” said Tsubasa Sawada, 28, according to Reuters. “All I can say is that it was a miracle.”

The fact it was a domestic Japanese flight may have made the evacuation process simpler, the flight attendant told The Washington Post; most of the passengers would have shared the same language, making it easy to understand and comply with instructions. Japanese passengers are also likely to be well-trained for hazard and evacuation because of the preparation for natural disasters common in the country. An Australian official told Sky News Australia there were about a dozen of that country’s citizens on the commercial flight as well.

“It is absolutely not common for passengers to comply with instructions, though some countries do better than some of the others, mostly based on … their sense of crisis awareness,” the flight attendant said.

But flight safety experts say a “really significant” factor that helped the evacuation is relevant to passengers from all countries — the fact that people appeared to have left without taking their luggage.

In most accidents, especially those in Europe and the United States, Galea said, passengers try to take their luggage with them. In footage of this flight, Galea said, “I didn’t see a single person with their luggage, not a single person.”

Aviation safety consultant Adrian Young said most passengers reflexively reach for their bags as soon as they land. But this would delay other passengers’ escape by valuable seconds.

A Japan Airlines jet caught fire Jan. 2 after colliding with a coast guard plane at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Eyewitness video shows what happened inside. (Video: Reuters)

From the available footage, Galea said, it also appears that only some of the cabin doors were opened, indicating that the flight crew took the key step of ensuring there was no fire around the exits that passengers were using, as was the case in a 1985 plane disaster in Britain that claimed the lives of 55 people.

One clip appeared to show a crew member at the back of the aircraft, which was dark and full of smoke, using a flashlight to direct passengers to the exit. The cabin crew members are “highly trained professionals,” Galea said. “The primary purpose for [their] being on the aircraft is not to serve your drinks. It’s to help you evacuate. It’s for safety.”

A major aspect of the evacuation’s success would have been the annual training on safety measures that airlines around the world give to their crews.

“It appears to be an absolute textbook evacuation,” Young said.

Another key factor, Galea and Young agreed, is improvements in plane designs, and particularly the composite materials used in A350 and other modern planes.

Galea said such materials are generally able to “maintain their strength during a fire.” The Japan Airlines aircraft was created with composite materials, he said, which “probably gave the passengers a bit of extra time before the fire burned through the fuselage.”

Young said that technologies in modern aircrafts are also likely to “produce smoke later or less smoke” after a fire.

“That’s really significant when we look at the old accident databases, where we see that people died inside the cabin of smoke inhalation — or they were incapacitated by smoke and never got to the door,” he said.

And the location of the crash — on a flat airport runway — meant that the aircraft was less likely to break up and cause further injuries or deaths.

So what is the lesson for people flying on planes?

Apart from urging passengers to leave bags behind, Galea advises them to pay attention to the in-flight safety notices — research has shown that even frequent fliers may not be aware of what to do in an emergency — and to count the number of seats to the nearest exits, both front and back, in case of reduced visibility.

He advises passengers to wear shoes during takeoff and landing in case they have to evacuate through debris. And budget airlines should ensure that families are able to sit together so that they can evacuate together and not waste time looking for their loved ones, he argues.

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Once outside, it’s important to move away from the plane — not just because it might explode, but also because of the extremely harmful fumes and microscopic particles that planes may produce.

But, as Galea noted, crashes are “very, very rare events” — and, in most cases, people on board will survive. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation of records for accidents on U.S. flights from 1983 through 2000 found that 95.7 percent of occupants survived.


A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed to Ed Galea an assertion that composite materials produce less smoke. That assertion was made by Adrian Young. The article has been corrected.


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